Dry land farming in dry weather puts crops to test
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Adam Blake weeds potatoes Friday morning. Except for the initial plowing and disking, all the planting, weeding and harvesting, with the exception of threshing, is being done by hand. The greenhouses of Collinwood Farm, adjacent to the Dry Land project, are visible in the background. -- Photo by Jennifer Jackson/Peninsula Daily News

By Jennifer Jackson
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND -- Amaranth. Camelina. Quinoa. What sound like unusual girls' names are actually types of plants that should be familiar to farmers and gardeners living in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains.

That's because these plants are drought-tolerant. They thrive with only the water that falls from the sky.

They are just a sample of the crops planted by volunteers in the Dry Land Farm Project.

The volunteers' goal: to find out what staple crops -- grains, legumes, corns and oil seeds -- can be grown on the dry side of the North Olympic Peninsula without irrigation.

"It's been a success, considering that this has been a very dry spring," said Ian Keith, a volunteer and the land owner. "We've had a whole month without precipitation."

The idea for the project germinated last fall when several people told Judith Alexander, the food resiliency coordinator for Local 20/20, that they were interested in using the fallow land next to Colinwood Farm.

Alexander approached Keith, who had purchased the 5 acres above Collinwood Farm between F and Tremont streets six years ago to save it from development.

He met with the group of volunteers through the winter to discuss possibilities, which included a P-Patch community garden -- similar to the neighborhood organic gardens project in Seattle -- orchard and educational farm site.

All involved installing a watering system and fencing.

Then Tinker Cavallero, an organic vegetable gardener, suggested experimenting with dry land crops -- grains, legumes and seeds -- that required no outlay for infrastructure.

Cavallero also knew Kevin Murphy, a doctoral candidate at Washington State University, who is writing a dissertation about perennial wheats.

Murphy discovered that all the research on wheat had been done in Eastern Washington, Cavallero said, so started looking into varieties that were grown west of the Cascades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including in the Dungeness Valley.

Wheat at Discovery Bay

"They used to grow wheat at Discovery Bay, and Lopez Island was covered with wheat farms," Alexander said.

Through Murphy and WSU's experimental agricultural center in Mount Vernon, the group acquired seeds to plant 18 different kinds of Western Washington wheat.

In addition, the volunteers planted Tibetan purple barley, hard red spring wheat, oats and a wheat-barley mix called triticale.

Other grain crops are flax, spelt, buckwheat, quinoa and three types of amaranth -- hopi red dye, intense purple and Hartman's grain.

The volunteers weed by hand and plan to cut the grain by hand, then have it threshed by a thresher from the agriculture center.

Many of the group already own grain mills, so they can produce their own flour.

They are also considering borrowing or buying an oil press to make oil from the camelino and sunflower seeds.

Corn prefers it dry

Among the discoveries: the corn in the Dry Land Project, which relies solely on rain, is doing better than the corn in her home garden, Alexander said.

One explanation: corn likes warm roots, and watering cools the soil.

"We've been talking about how people may be over-watering their corn," Alexander said. "Nothing like a dry land farm project to bring that lesson home."

The volunteers hope the project's success will lead to reducing the need for trucked-in food and expanding the diversity of regional agriculture.

Jim Salter said he got involved in the project because he wanted people to know what can be grown here and how to grow it.

"One of the biggest weaknesses is grains," he said. "We want to encourage people who have large pastures to make them more productive."

Other volunteers are 4-year-old Aurora Graham and Dominic Alei, 6, who come with their parents.

Wendy Breiby joined because she's a vegetarian and wanted to grow staples and vegetables without irrigating.

Working with others is a bonus, she said, and makes what seems like an insurmountable amount of work doable.

The volunteers are already expanding the project, which covers 1 acre, to adjacent acres, which will be planted with a cover crop over the winter, Keith said.

Plans are to grow beans and peas next year, Alexander said.

"This was the first stage of a trial garden," Keith said as he hoed weeds in the camelino.

The public is invited to visit the project Friday mornings after the Fourth of July weekend. Visitors can park at Colinwood Farm, 1210 F St., and walk to the project.

The volunteers also are planning an event during the Sept. 20 Farm Tour.

For more information, e-mail drylandfood@gmai.com or phone 360-379-2882.


Port Townsend/Jefferson County reporter-columnist Jennifer Jackson can be reached at jjackson@olypen.com.

Last modified: June 28. 2009 7:47PM
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